Statistical noise drowns out the reality of radiation exposure

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 May, 2016, 5:16pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 May, 2016, 5:16pm

Your editorial certainly gets its main theme right on the need to build more nuclear power plants if we want to contain climate change (“World cannot escape the need for nuclear power plants”, May 10).

However, you need to get the facts right on the health effects of radiation exposure. Except for an increase in thyroid cancers (largely treatable and preventable had the authorities acted to provide iodine pills to the children exposed) the health effects of radiation from Chernobyl have been largely lost in the statistical noise.

The final report of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), which has followed the health of people affected by Chernobyl for 30 years, states, “The predicted lifetime excess cancer and leukaemia deaths for 200,000 liquidators, 135,000 evacuees from the 30km zone, 270,000 residents of the SCZs [‘strict control zones’] were 2,200 for liquidators, 160 for evacuees, and 1,600 among residents of the SCZs.

“This total, about 4,000 deaths projected over the lifetimes of the some 600,000 persons most affected by the accident, is a small proportion of the total cancer deaths from all causes that can be expected to occur in this population.”

Since 1949, there have been over 750,000 deaths from coal mining accidents in China alone and the World Health Organisation estimates global deaths from air pollution at about two to three million per year.

As set out in the UNSCEAR study report, by far the most serious human health consequences from Chernobyl have been psychological. These people grimly accepted their “inevitable” grisly deaths from radiation exposure and gave themselves up to drink; tens of thousands of mothers aborted fetuses in fear of mutagenic effects on their unborn babies, and despondent people committed suicide, resigned to their imagined horrible demise.

As to claims regarding “deformation in babies”, the UNSCEAR report identified no significant mutagenic effects from Chernobyl.

Similarly, studies carried out on the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings (starting in 1947 and still continuing) have identified no significant mutagenic effects on the offspring of survivors and only relatively slightly increased risk of cancers even in survivors who nearly died from acute radiation sickness.

Ian Dubin, Central